the folks who live on the hill

I’m a captive audience. Mr Munroe has positioned his wheelchair, unconsciously or by design, right in the middle of the doorway, and the only way I’ll be able to leave the house now is if he scoots back a foot or two, or I do the scooting for him.
Mrs Munroe is just as stuck in her armchair, beneath a black and white, poster-sized print of their wedding photo, taken sixty years ago. Throughout the examination Mrs Munroe has been as happily smiling as the young woman in the picture behind her, in a vague kind of way, but there’s a sharp edge of irritation to her voice now as her husband puts the brakes on and starts telling me about Dinah Shore.
‘Now there was a singer,’ he says. ‘Classically trained, of course. You can hear it in her voice. There’s a purity there and a… and a clarity that you just don’t get with other singers. Simple arrangements help enormously. Violin. Piano. A little clarinet, with a mute…’
He does a mime for each instrument.
‘Oh do be quiet John!’ says his wife. ‘He hasn’t got time.’
But Mr Munroe carries on as if his hearing aid doesn’t extend to that corner of the room.
‘They’re selling a CD pack of her most famous songs down at that record shop on Market Street. D’you know the one I mean? In the little parade. Eight ninety-nine for a hundred songs. Twenty-five on each disc, which I think works out at about nine pence for each song, which is pretty good value, considering.’
‘Sounds amazing! I’ll check her out on YouTube.’
‘John!’ says his wife. ‘Please!’
The only acknowledgement Mr Munroe makes is to take his weight on his elbows and shift his position in the chair.
‘Now – take that girl from Manchester,’ he says. ‘The one in the news. Where the bomb was.’
‘Ariana Grande?’
‘Her. Now she’s got a voice. I wouldn’t mind betting she knows a thing or two about Dinah Shore.’
‘It was great, that benefit gig she did,’ I say, picking up my bag and taking one hesitant step in his direction. ‘Anyway…’
‘You know something?’ he says.
‘What’s that?’
‘I had a cousin who worked on the radio. A big job he had, something high up, in charge of all the music. And I was talking to him on this particular occasion…’
‘John!’ says Mrs Munroe.
‘…and he said to me, he said Tell me honestly. What do you think is the best vocal performance of any female recording artist of the last fifty years? And d’you know what I said?’
‘Dinah Shore?’
‘Peggy Lee. Her version of “The Folks who Live on the Hill”. Arrangement by Nelson Riddle, with the orchestra actually conducted by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was a good conductor and arranger, you know. Not just a singer. He learnt his craft from Axel Stordhal. And if you see his name on a record, you’ll know you’re in safe hands.’
‘He has got to go, John…!’
‘So why Peggy Lee?’ I say, helplessly.
‘Well, it’s interesting. The song itself is pretty cheerful. Quite sweet, in a sugary, romantic kind of way. But when Peggy Lee sings it – with that arrangement – the whole thing becomes a little – I don’t know – creepy. And I said to my cousin – you know, the one in charge of all the music – I said to him: it makes you think of all those poor chaps who went off to war and never came back. And he completely agreed with me.’
‘John! Honestly…’
But you see, Peggy Lee could do that. She’d suffered in her life. She had a way of bringing it to the music.’
‘Hmm. Well I’ll certainly look out for it. Now – I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to say goodbye to you now. I’ve got a few more patients to see.’
‘Of course! My apologies. I’m holding you up.’
He makes a show of looking for the brakes, paddling his arms either side of the wheelchair, but gives up just as quickly, and folds them bacl in his lap again.
‘What d’you think of that Theresa May?’ he says.
‘Do you mean as a singer?’
‘As a politician. A prime minister. Isn’t she extraordinary?’
‘That’s one way of putting it.’
‘I think she out-Thatchers Thatcher.’
‘Well – I have to admit I’m not a fan.’
‘I think women – when they get power – are better than men. They just seem to crack on with things.’
He illustrates the thought with a plucking motion of his hand, then takes advantage of the fact that his hand is near his face to reposition his glasses.
‘You certainly have to be thick-skinned to be a politician,’ I say, checking my watch. ‘Look – I’m really sorry, Mr Munroe. I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m going to have to squeeze by and leave you to it.’
‘Of course. Of course.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake let him go!’ says his wife.
‘Just a minute…’ he says, and fusses with the brakes again, putting them off, then on, then off – and then on again.
‘Here. Allow me,’ I say, reaching over to take them off, and gently guiding him back.
‘I can manage!’ he says. When I straighten up and let him go, he makes a series of ineffectual manoeuvres that only succeed in jamming him sideways across the doorway.
‘Blast!’ he says.
‘John! He’s got people to see!’ says his wife. ‘He can’t stop here all day listening to you.’
‘Now look…’ says Mr Munroe, suddenly out of breath. He makes as if to push himself completely out of the chair, but then subsides just as suddenly, putting his hands in his lap and looking up at me with a slack kind of expression. ‘She has Alzheimer’s,’ he says. ‘But I expect you knew that.’

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